Until a decision by the Supreme Court last week, some companies were allowed to own a very small part of a human being called a gene. This right to own an invention and use it to make money is called a patent. The Court's decision stops the ownership of genes and could end up benefiting the health of many Americans.
Genes are the basic building blocks of life. Thousands of them can be found inside the cells of all living things. Your genes determine whether you have brown eyes or blue, curly hair or straight, and even what diseases you might have throughout your life.
Scientists still have a lot to learn about human genes. And researching these genes can help scientists understand and treat many health problems. However, this research demands a lot of time, money, and work.
Before last week, U.S. law allowed companies to hold a patent to certain genes discovered as a result of their research. A patent gives an inventor the sole legal right to use or sell an invention.
AN INVENTION OR JUST LIFE?
Until the Court’s ruling, a company called Myriad Genetics owned patents for identifying two human genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2. People who have mutations, or physical changes, in those genes have a very high chance of developing breast cancer. Women are at a particularly high risk for this condition.
By holding the patents for these genes, Myriad was the only company that could provide genetic tests to indicate whether people had mutated forms of these genes. If a woman tests positive for the mutated gene, she knows she is at increased risk for cancer and may be able to take steps to prevent it.
But the Supreme Court found Myriad’s patents illegal. Why? The court determined that patents are for inventors who create something new, not for people who discover something that is already there. The decision was unanimous, meaning all nine Supreme Court Justices agreed.
“Myriad did not create anything,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the Court’s decision. “To be sure, it found an important and useful gene, but separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”
HELPING HEALTH CARE
The Court’s decision could have a huge impact on people’s health. Critics of the decision worry that without patents, companies might have less reason to research genes. They will no longer be able to make money from holding rights to the genes they discovered. But supporters say the ruling could clear the way for important genetic testing for all kinds of diseases.
Other laboratories can now develop tests that might be cheaper or even more effective. In fact, hours after the ruling, a company called DNATraits said it would offer gene testing for less than a third of Myriad’s price.
Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1, said she is delighted with the Supreme Court’s decision. “It is splendid news for patients, for physicians, for scientists, and for common sense,” she said. “The marketplace will now be open.”